Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Three

The base conference room was small, dirty and crowded with over a dozen people breathing and sweating in a room with life-support for eight. Since the room had been in constant use for days, no one had taken out any of the effluent that people create. Empty drink cups and food wrappers were wadded into corners. A cup had been abandoned in the middle of the small table days ago: the level of liquid had gone down, leaving a brown rime inside.

Garish military posters in metal frames attached to the walls. One poster showed a cryptic icon of an animal surrounded by stars and jagged bolts of energy; over this was a huge “Fighting 59th.” Another poster showed a sphere bathed in fire with a carefully done icon of a destroyer in the background, labeled “Hell In Orbit”. The poster titled “Death From Above” showed a welter of small insignia patches and escutcheons.

Six freighter pilots lounged around the table, wondering what further confusion they would have to endure. Larry knew two of the pilots and nodded at them as he entered. The remaining chair, however, was between a pilot Larry didn’t know and a military officer who was peering at his computer. Larry adjusted the chair and sat down.

The other pilots looked glum. Larry was afraid that they were about to be told of some political change that made them unable to transport in this sector. They would not be able to pick up return loads and would be forced into “delivering a load of vacuum”: making the expensive empty run to someplace they could find a paying load. Larry found he harbored an intense dislike for any political change that disrupted the smooth flow of commerce.

The pilot closest to Larry leaned over and shook his hand. “John White,” he said, then folded his arms and resumed a focused study of the abandoned drink cup. Larry shook his head; he felt that the cramped confines of a base demanded attention to the details of domestic duties. The cup was a symptom of overlooked details.

John had the characteristic paunch of pilots who sit in their flight decks for days at a stretch, sleeping and eating in the cockpit. He had a short, clumsy, self-inflicted haircut that could be managed easily by quick trips to the head during a flight. Like the other pilots, he still wore his flight suit. Larry realized that he stood out as the only person wearing civilian clothes in the room. He wondered why other pilots couldn’t buy a decent suit of civilian clothes for these kinds of meetings.

One of the military types looked at his watch and then at his computer. He looked around the room and his focus fell on Larry.

“And you are?” he asked.

“Drover, Larry Drover of the Mule II,” Larry said, trying to sound cheerful and ordinary.
The officer poked at his computer for a while. He turned to another military type. “One to go,” he said.

The other military type looked around, “We’re out of chairs.” “Get General Johnson, and we’ll start as soon as the last pilot is here.” Two of the pilots started talking quietly. In the large, transparent silence of the room, their whispers were plain as they complained of the price of resupply out here at the edge of the Core Planets; the Lyman Base fees for provisions were outrageous, far more than good conscience should permit; if they’d known this, their bids would have been higher; they would have declined the load; who needs to travel out here anyway.

“The Outer Rim hold some systems nearby,” one of the pilots whispered. This sent a tiny geologic tremor around the room. The military types slowed their typing. The pilots stopped feigning indifference and started listening. Two turned toward the speaker. There was an awkward moment when the speaker realized she now had the floor.

She looked down at the computer cradled in her hand. She had a military-style flight suit that had a separate vest with straps and clips for every kind of equipment a pilot might want. Her hair was cropped pilot short, but she wore fairly elaborate earrings. Like most pilots, she found space desperately lonely, but was also uncomfortable around other people. After taking a breath, she glanced quickly at her audience and then studied the table in front of her.

“They built a base called Carillon. I know a guy who took in one of the first loads of provisions.”

The pilots nodded. This was indisputable fact, with a certificate of authenticity that would never be challenged. The spectrum of veracity among space pilots went from lies through rumors, military intelligence, news, and ended at transport manifests. You could debate what you wanted about the state of the economy of any base or stellar cluster or even the entire network of Core Planets; you couldn’t dispute that actual transport of goods.

“I heard they’ve put up a line of ‘em,” said a pilot wearing an older style of flight harness.

John White nodded intensely. “Duquense,” he said to the drink cup.

“Duquense?” Larry asked.

“Duquense,” he answered. “Part of the line. Almost as far into the core as they’ve ever reached. They say that Acadia is a Rim-friendly base.”

“And Niagara,” someone else said. “I met a guy who heard they were offering top prices. Top prices. With paid dock time.”

The phrase ‘paid dock time’ echoed around the room. Being paid to sit idle was an offer that that was more valuable than any political loyalties.

“Two bases named after the Outer Rim King Louis,” John White said. “And one named after his grandfather, King Louis.”

This received a polite chuckle.

“What do they pay?” someone asked.

A military type jumped up. He seemed to be some kind of lieutenant. “Okay, folks, can we listen up?”
“Metals,” someone whispered.

A ‘wow’ orbited around the room. The most common form of pay was credits for fuel, victuals, parts and services. Credits didn’t transfer well; they locked a pilot into routes where the credits were usable. Metals gave a pilot freedom to move to new routes, following the shifting demands.

“Okay folks, we’ve got a lot to cover here, and we can’t waste a lot of time on scuttle-butt,” the military type barked.

“Aren’t we waiting for someone?” John White asked the drink cup.

“We’re always waiting for someone,” someone answered. The pilots started chuckling among themselves.

“Hurry up and wait,” someone else said. This was picked up as a chorus by several others.

“We’re behind schedule already, we really can’t wait any longer,” the lieutenant said.

“We’re not surprised,” someone muttered.

The door creaked open, and an aging officer came in with an assistant. There were two obvious trappings of power: a military type shouting “officer on deck,” and a crowd of supporters, lackeys and sycophants. At the “officer on deck” shout there was a general jump to attention that Larry found it difficult to ignore. He forced himself to stay seated, like the other pilots, in carefully maintained indifference.

Drover thought that William Johnson was relatively old to be a Major General. He was wearing a military uniform, but his paunch didn’t fit the trim military cut; he bulged out in various directions. Rather than a military flat-top haircut, his hair was professionally styled.

Lieutenant Colonel Pomeroy was General Johnson’s shadow. He had been a successful lawyer, and had shifted into military service as a stepping stone in politics, also. He pointed Major General Johnson at a computer at one end of the room. The military types shifted around, revealing a chair with no back, arms shrugging uselessly. Another missed bit of housecleaning.

Lieutenant Colonel Pomeroy adjusted his computer, “Okay, fly boys, listen up.” “Don’t forget the fly girls,” the Carillon pilot said. This got a laugh from the freighter pilots, and a cold stare from the lieutenant.

“Oh, touch my fly, baby”, said the flight harness pilot.

“Catch me, freighter,” Carillon said, sneering at him.

There was a chorus of jeers from the pilots.

“I don’t think the General came here to listen to this,” Pomeroy said. “Major General William Johnson.”

Pomeroy pointed General Johnson to the computer. Johnson squinted at it for a moment.

“Thanks. We’re entering the next phase of our operation in this cluster,” the General began. “For your protection, we’ve assigned military adjuncts to each of you contract freighters.”

Larry’s hand shot up. The General squinted at him, then looked around the room, puzzled by the interruption. He looked at his various aids and assistants. Some frowned at Larry; others stared blankly, unsure what to do.

“Yes?” General Johnson said after a long pause.

“Things have been okay. Why are you making changes?” Larry asked.

“I believe we’ve made that perfectly clear,” Pomeroy said.

“When?”

“Did you or did you not agree to the transport terms and conditions as set forth in —”

General Johnson cut him off. “You’re carrying military gear to construct a military post where we’ll stage an attack on an Outer Rim base at Carillon.” There was a stiffening among the military types; a shuffling from foot to foot and poking of computers. Glances were passed around the room. Apparently, this was too frank an explanation of the freight handling.

“I don’t plan on getting shot at,” Larry added. He didn’t mind the ordinary dangers of space flight; he had his flight checklists to ward them off. He was very afraid of hostile activity with no standard procedures or checklists.

“The frontier is changing, son,” Johnson replied. “You’re going to have to adapt or move on.”

Larry didn’t like this answer. He folded his arms and stared at Johnson.

Johnson stepped away from the computer. “Pomeroy,” he said.

“The base will be code-named Henry, to honor current president of the Core Planets Governmental Network. You can start to download the coordinates now,” Pomeroy said.

One of the military types poked his computer. The pilots all reached for their own computers. Larry had a computer that was not originally part of the Mule II. It had two extra interface modules that were now essential for communication. The computer was not large enough to accommodate them as internal components, so they were attached with adhesive tape and hook-and-loop fabric fasteners. It took Larry a moment to unwrap his computer and start accepting the coordinates for download. Ms. Carillon had a very new computer, quite small, sleek and easy to use.

Larry brought up the coordinates and the relevant charts. Henry base was attached to a planet named to “George” after the current president of the Core Planets Network council; George’s son, Henry, would likely take over the reigns of government in due time.

“Isn’t that in the Cephalopod sector?” Larry asked.

Ms. Carillon was poking her computer, clearly struggling to accept the old-style military transport coordinates. “Do you have this in another format?” she asked.

General Johnson stared hard at Drover. “Did I ask you for a critique of our strategy?” The General was staring at Larry with a ferocious intensity. Larry, accustomed to long periods with no human contact at all, had no response to this kind of hostility. He flinched back into his chair, sliding away from the table and slouching down even further.

“Did I?” the General asked.

Larry realized the question wasn’t rhetorical. His hands waved for a moment as he struggled to find an answer. “No,” Larry began. “But I’m worried about my ship.”

One of the officers poked his computer, and then slid it in front of the General. General Johnson squinted down at the computer.

“It’s not even your ship. You chartered it,” the General said.

“You offered good money to fly your stuff all over the frontier,” Larry replied.

Many of the other pilots nodded. This was the approved method for making good money in transport: charter a ship appropriate to the load.

“When we’re done here, this will be a Core Planets cluster,” The General said, and then peered around the room. “Are there any actual questions?”

The pilots looked around at each other. Some looked down at their computers. A few glanced over at the military types lining the wall at one end of the room.

“Are we going to get fighter escorts?” a pilot blurted. He had a haphazard beard that looked like he shaved random patches of his face on an irregular schedule.

The General looked around at his officers.

“This is not a large base. Honestly, we don’t have the personnel to escort you all over this little corner of the galaxy.”

The pilot slouched down in his chair. “Without escorts, I can’t take the chance.” 

“Do you want to get paid?” Johnson asked, staring hard at the pilot.

The pilot squeezed down in his chair. “It isn’t worth it if my ship is at risk.” 

“I will not have you bunch of vagabonds stealing my stores. I will not protect one of your ships until the petty thievery stops.” Johnson was working himself to a frenzy. He raised his voice even louder, “It can’t be that hard to off-load everything on your manifest. Why must you conceal one case-load of everything?” This accusation led to a stony, defiant silence. The standard apology was that a space ship was large and complex; things tended to get lost. Everyone called it shrinkage, not theft or loss, to politely conceal the real intent. Every pilot considered load shrinkage as part of their fee structure.

“I think you’ve just got time to finish pre-flight checks.” General Johnson started a recitation, “On behalf of the Core Planets military leadership, the Core Planets combined government network and all of your family and loved ones on Core planets everywhere, may divine providence smile on us and help us destroy the Outer Rim military bases that threaten our safety.”

Pomeroy moved into position at the desk. “The General would like to thank you all for your participation.”

This sounded dismissive to some of the pilots. Shuffling chairs and folding up computers, they started to get up. One of the junior officers picked up his computer and started to shoulder his way into position by the doorway.

The pilots gathered around the doorway, waiting for it to open. Scruffy Beard poked the control by the door with no effect. Flight Harness reached across and jabbed the control. The indicators showed simply shut, not locked, but Flight Harness toggled the lock switch a few times. John White reached through the crowd and jabbed the button. The motors clicked as the door creaked open.

Compromises were the price of being at the edge of the frontier. Since bases were often built hastily to allow rapid exploitation of new-found planets, unscrupulous contractors could easily substitute components and pocket the difference. Greedy freighters would sell substandard parts from their private load, keeping the difference between the contractor’s price and the prices paid under the counter to unknown suppliers.

“Get your adjunct assignments before you leave,” an officer announced.

Larry sat in his chair, staying back from the press by the door. He watched as pilots and military adjuncts were matched up. When the last few were working their way out the door, Larry pushed his chair back. He’d already heard his name called; his adjunct was a Lieutenant Colonel Whiting, a fact he set aside for the moment. He preferred to maintain his cool indifference to military procedures as long as possible.

General Johnson, similarly, had waited for the crowd at the door to thin out. He looked at Larry coldly. “Don’t you have preflights?”

Larry looked over at the General, and his cluster of assistants, including Lt. Colonel Whiting. She stood out from the other members of the command cadre. She didn’t wear the complete marine battle dress uniform. She had added jewelry, bending or breaking some Marine Corps rules. Also, she packed the biggest weapon Larry had ever seen jammed into a thigh holster.

“Why hurry? This is just going to be another crappy day on the frontier. Shot at by the Outer Rim, out of fuel, and harassed by Cephalopods—”

The General slammed the desk, cutting Larry off.

“These rumors of a Cephalopods alliance with the Outer Rim is an exaggeration,” General Johnson shouted. The assistants all shuffled around nervously. Larry wondered how bad the situation could be if that kind of vehement lie was the response.

General Johnson looked meaningfully at Whiting. She looked over at Drover. Larry felt the stare and returned it. She picked up her computer, shoved the backless chair out of the way and started to head out of the meeting room.

“Let’s go,” she said, with the easy authority of one accustomed to command.

“Yes, ma’am, right away ma’am”, said Larry, laying on the irony as thickly as he could.

She stopped, glowered at him for a moment, then softened, squeezed around the table toward him and stuck out her hand. “Lieutenant Colonel Whiting.”

Drover looked at her, unsure what to do next. He watched General Johnson and his party leave. Whiting waited, eyeing Drover closely.


“You know,” she said, “I’ve only just met you and already I don’t like you.” 

“That’s a comfort. I don’t like this whole stinking job,” Drover said, shaking her hand. “But here I am anyway.” 

Whiting strode out of the room. Drover looked at the detritus left behind. The lonely drink cup with the falling level of liquid remained alone in the middle of the table. Larry wondered what his flight engineer would make of this kind of Mammal military intrusion.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Two

Lieutenant Colonel Natalie Whiting strode into General Johnson’s office like she owned it.  As just one of many mid-level officers, her situation could not be good.  Johnson usually addressed her as one of a group, leaving the details to his cadre of advisors.  A one-on-one meeting with a Major General broke through the command hierarchy.

General Johnson looked old, chubby and frail without his flock of sycophants and supporters.  Johnson’s first career was the creation of a vast business empire; he leveraged his business contacts to create career in politics as the governor of a system of bases near here at the edge of the Core Planets.  His origins were deep in the Old Core, but he had moved out to the frontier to exploit the new opportunities there as the local military leader.  Service in his organization opened the door to making money in his business empire or advancing in his political sphere.

“Whiting,” Johnson said as a greeting.  He pointed to one of the chairs the crowded the office.  The small office was made claustrophobic by the absurdly large and plush furniture.

Whiting was tall and muscular; while she wore a uniform well, she wore more jewelry than regulations allowed and had her uniforms tailored.  After spectacular business failures, she had been reduced to borrowing money from her family to buy a commission in the military.  Stripped of self-confidence, she blamed her problems to taking a hands-off, armchair leadership style.  She accused herself of being too distant in an effort to avoid nagging and micro-managing.  In the Marine Corps she hoped to find success by getting her hands dirty.  While she came from a different social class, she tried to put herself on an equal footing with the marines she commanded by joining their daily physical training drills.  She also carried one of the biggest side arms the Marine Corps used.  It was a heavy, cumbersome gun, and the power packs were bulky, but it made her comfortable.

“Have a seat,” Johnson said, smiling broadly.

Johnson sighed as she sat down.  He glanced down at his desk for a moment, looking at some notes printed on paper.

“You’re ambitious,” he said, slowly, tentatively.

Whiting looked at him, wondering if she was supposed to respond.  It didn’t sound like a question, but he left a large silence hanging in the small office.  She decided to wait for him to spin out his story.

“You’ve had your share of problems and setbacks, haven’t you?” Johnson asked, growing more confident.

Whiting scowled, wondering where he was heading.

“I think my record speaks for itself, sir,” she began.  She faltered, but went on anyway, “I’ve got the best fitness rating an officer can have.  I’ve accomplished every mission, met every objective.”
Johnson nodded, looking at his notes for a moment.

“You know we’ve had our share of problems out here on the frontier,” he said.

She didn’t try to fill the silence with a response to his statement.  Whiting was well aware of Johnson’s mission to drive the Outer Rim forces from this cluster.  She was also aware that he was building a huge frontier base, which involved high transport costs, and a large number of independent, civilian pilots and freight ships.  The presence of so many people on an isolated, incomplete frontier base created innumerable problems that were only tangential to the real mission.

“Can I be honest?” Johnson asked.

“Of course,” she said, completely disappointed.  She hated this kind of statement; it meant that the whole conversation was a blurry muddle of lies and half-truths.

“There are some concerns about your ability to work with your peers,” he said, firing the first real shot after his initial maneuvering.

She stared, unable respond to this kind of accusation.

“Nothing serious, nothing definite.  However,” he continued and coughed.  “To be honest, I think there’s nothing to it, just — honestly — jealousy from my advisors.”

She had trouble understanding what she was hearing.  She concluded that when he said “his advisors” this had to be the handiwork of Seth Pomeroy, a former lawyer, and Johnson’s most odious toady.  She wondered what she had done to draw fire from Pomeroy.  She couldn’t think of anyone who might have reported her as uncooperative.

“Here on the frontier, we have to make sacrifices,” Johnson said.  “Anyone who can’t work prioritize properly...” Johnson trailed off.  “Anyone who doesn’t have the support of their peers...” Johnson said, vaguely.  “I’d have to honestly question their potential.”

Johnson went on, telling a rambling story about how he had overcome some business crisis by focusing on his strengths.  She’d heard this kind of story from Johnson many times.  Some of his stories were true, but many were paraphrases from management self-help books, lightly reworded to be in the first person.  Someone must have decided that she still had a personal fortune somewhere, and this was a problem.  She had only been able to buy a commission as lieutenant, and had earned every promotion: Johnson’s report didn’t include this.

Johnson stopped talking and looked at her with a puzzled expression.  “That’s what you want, isn’t it?” he asked.

He’d said something about an opportunity.  She realized she was sweating heavily.  Her heart was racing and she felt queasy.  The situation was suddenly crystal clear to her. She’d been set up as the ideal candidate for something either risky or stupid.  Someone had convinced Johnson that she had all three desirable features for a dangerous mission: capable, desperate and expendable.

She saw that her career in the military had become entangled around Pomeroy; she trapped in the well of dark gravity he created within Johnson’s command structure.  Dragged into a decaying orbit, the best she could hope for was a miraculous escape from career death.

Johnson turned a computer on his desk toward her.  He’d said something about freighter pilots.  She looked at the list of pilots, ships, loads and arrival times.  One of the ships carried a mini factory that she’d ordered for metal extraction and base fabrication.  She pointed at the ship in the list, unsure precisely what Johnson was talking about.

Johnson nodded and clicked the screen with a stylus.  “So you know this pilot?” Johnson asked.

Whiting shook her head.  The company that made the factory had contracted for delivery. She only knew that the shipping rates were competitive; the pilot was able to work the frontier cheaply.

“Doesn’t matter.  I know that you are an excellent leader, capable of making the hard decisions when the time comes.  I know that when you tackle a problem it gets solved right away,” Johnson said, brightly.

She couldn’t put this comment together with “doesn’t have the support of their peers.” She knew that “hard decisions” was military code for letting people get killed.  Did he think she unfit for her command or not?

Catching her breath, she realized that this was an opportunity for hands-on leadership. This was her chance to get her hands dirty under Johnson’s command.  It was, perhaps, the only way to put her business failures behind her.

“So you want me to take some scouts out to patrol the frontier?” she asked, tentatively. Then she cursed herself for not saying something more positive and direct.

Johnson coughed again.  It was his nervous, evasive cough.  “No, no.  We don’t want to provoke an incident.  Those freighters have immunity to move back and forth across the frontier with ease.  They are always involved in smuggling or stealing.  They are the perfect cover.”

Whiting sat up, laser straight.  “You want me to go undercover?”  She blurted it before she realized what she was saying.

Johnson shook his head.  “In all honesty, I can’t order, ask, or even suggest it,” he said, suddenly stern.  “I’m ordering you to gather intelligence for Colonel Williams.  How you accomplish that mission is your business.”

She looked at him closely.  “Yes, sir,” she said.

“About your construction details.  I’ll take control of those,” he said, then added “in the interim.”

Johnson clicked his computer a few times.  “I’ve sent you an invitation to a meeting with those freighter pilots.  Fourteen hundred.”

She stood up.  Pomeroy had twisted her independent leadership into a liability.  He had colored her business failures to maker her look desperate.  Her factory was now Johnson’s factory, making her expendable.  But was she truly capable of undercover work?  Perhaps Pomeroy was right about her level of desperation making her capable of success.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

One

Larry Drover displayed his checklist, but hesitated before he turned down the music rattling through the cockpit. For the three hundredth time, he was about to begin one of the many call-and-response litanies of interstellar flight operations. Larry and his flight engineer used the same standard orbital insertion list for every star; they did every step in the standard order; Larry knew it by rote, but he still read the list from his computer, faithful that no problem would escalate to fatal consequences. Larry balanced the stability of standard procedures against the chaos of flying to frontier outposts.

“Weapons lock,” the cockpit annunciator said. The computer-generated voice had an eerie calm, at odds with the situation it described.

“Now is not a good time,” Larry said. He turned down the music and checked the details of the lock. The display showed that it was very likely to be real, not a misinterpreted stray signal. “Just don’t shoot,” Larry added.

Larry tried to set the weapon lock aside and focus on the navigation problem of lining up with the Lyman base planetary orbit. Stellar insertion was the real work of space flight. Days or weeks of idleness were exchanged for moments of panic. In addition to dodging the various forms of debris that orbited a star, his ability to find the tiny base swinging a tiny planet lost in glare of a star was already of life-or-death urgency.

“Unknown ship,” a voice squawked over the communicator, distorted by the speed of propagation.

“Not unknown to me,” Larry said, trying to look for the gravitational eddy created by an uncharted moon around the Lyman planet.

“Unknown ship,” said the voice over the communicator. As they closed, signal propagation was improving.

Larry risked taking a hand off the controls to engage the communicator. He still had a velocity where seconds could become a million kilometers of error.

“Unknown cannon-jock, this is the Mule II on final stinking approach to Lyman base,” Larry barked into the communicator.

There was a satisfying pause while this was digested.

“Weapon IFF Interrogation,” the cockpit annunciator chimed. Larry was hoping he would be located on the friend side of the friend or foe identification.

“Mule II, Lyman base is on full defensive alert, please reduce inbound velocity or you will be fired upon.”

“What the hell are you talking about? I’m coming in heavy, and this is the only approach that will work.”

“Mule II, you must reduce inbound velocity. You are on an attack profile.” Larry glanced at his navigation chart display. While he could switch to a low-eccentricity orbit, it would take a lot of those big round orbits to loose all of his interstellar energy. Time was money; he didn’t have the budget for planetary politics.

“Check again: I’m a freighter. I’m on a scheduled delivery!” Larry turned off the communicator, and continued, shouting at the instruments, “I’m bringing your stinking factory! Let me brake! Who’s the new idiot down there?”

There was no reply. Larry took this as permission to continue toward a high-eccentricity orbit.

The cockpit announced “Weapon Lock Cleared.”

“Thanks a hell of a lot,” Larry said to the controls.

When the communicator chimed, “Mule II, have you had contact with Cephalopod scouts?” it was a different voice, a different channel, and they had politely used the introductory chime instead of just barking out their message.

Cephalopod depredations were the norm on the frontier. It seemed like one planet in three had some kind of Cephalopod bacterial production facility, typically called a “slime mine”.

Between gravitational eddies, Larry risked a quick jab at the communicator switch.

“Cephs?” Larry began, “the cluster’s oozing with them.”

“Where was your last contact?”

“You know,” Larry said, pausing as the ship finished the climb out of one planet’s gravity field, heeled over and started the final slide into the central star’s field, “I’m trying to fly a ship here, can we talk later?”

“Regulations forbid planetary contact without a complete report on Cephalopod contacts.” “Weapons Lock,” the cockpit annunciator added.

“Is this your first day?” Larry shouted, loud enough to trigger the gain limiter on the communicator. “I’m doing stellar braking. I’ll try to remember to wave to your goofy little pile of crap as I rip past. I’ll be glad to catch up on the latest gossip before base rendezvous, okay?”

“And you listen to me, pilot, we’ve all got sacrifices to make out here.” Larry wondered if the sacrifices extended to blowing up a transport ship to comply with an intelligence-gathering directive.
Since the Core Planets frontier spanned several Cephalopod bases, almost every Mammal base in this cluster had Cephalopods either working or loitering. Larry had personal and business contacts with Cephalopods. A change in the political climate here could cast a big shadow on ordinary, legal business dealings. There was a very real possibility that Larry could be flying into a situation where he was a criminal. Larry’s freighter was a target that no cannon-jock could miss.

There communications silence was long and satisfying. The bite of stellar gravity was eating energy away from the ship at a good rate. The ship’s metal frame pinged and groaned as the forces shifted around it. The time to orbit clock wound down at the right speed. As he got closer to his planned stellar orbit, he would be able to start the more complex procedure of chasing the planet around the star. Then he could chase the base around the planet.

The communication silence stretched out to an ominous length. It could mean that he had offended the intelligence office, which could be a problem. Larry was well aware that problems tended to accrete, growing larger and more complex. The transport business depended on problem-free delivery; he needed a spotless record of satisfied customer references.

“Mule II, report in when you enter stellar orbit,” the communicator chimed.

“Thank you,” Larry replied, and shut the channel off.

Larry had won a contract to take a mini-factory to Lyman Base; after a paid layover, he would take it to a newer base, further out into the frontier. The postings for loads to the frontier were always vague, but offered well above average compensation for those pilots who could navigate to an otherwise uninhabited star; a star with no preset beacons or orbital data, no planetary survey or navigational model, no accurate mass estimate or precise distance from nearby stars. This was Larry’s frontier; he was one of the few who was sure to arrive successfully when everything else was unsure. He had more problems with large, established bases than he did with the uncharted stars.

From stellar orbit, Larry downloaded his log information to the Lyman base computer. The  intelligence officer wanted to talk about the log. Larry insisted he actually read it first, rather than tie up the channel having Larry read it to him. In Larry’s opinion this satisfied the necessary reporting of Cephalopod contacts. Intelligence, unhappy, threatened to call if they had any questions. Larry could see that they hadn’t developed a simple procedure and checklist for debriefing pilots.

Larry looked on intelligence officers as a kind of tax on his time, to be recovered in higher fees charged for military transport. Another price that Larry paid for the privilege of military contracting was enduring the disorganization stemming from the complexities of a rendezvous involving dozens of ships. Each pilot had different requirements for docking and loading as they crowded around Lyman Base. The swarm of Core transport ships was its own navigation hazard, just as dangerous and immediate than the nearby planet and its irresistible gravity.

Most of the Core Planets bases were massive structures, almost planet-like in their solid framework and dense use of interior volume. Around the outside of a structure were docking piers and bays. On the military bases, these were specialized for military ships, leaving transport freighters to struggle for useful docking facilities.

Larry’s attempt to dock the Mule II included the additional stress of long holds while other freight ships were consulted. Each small step cascaded into a series of adjustments and consultations. The sizes of the various transports were something that the Lyman Base could barely accommodate. Larry fretted and chafed while they located other pilots and moved ships to make space for the Mule II. Since he was precisely on schedule, Larry found the last-minute adjustments inexcusable.

Larry created some of his own stress by sticking doggedly to his ritual. He needed to do everything in order, with no expeditious short cuts, and no temporary accommodations. He repeated the old saw through each of his four hundred and fifty dockings: “there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots.” Each step in his ritual had its place, its proper call and response. When other ships were involved, however, he could create his own navigation hazard. The possibility that his conservative approach could be dangerous was a heresy that he would never imagine.

At the end of the list, with parts of the ship powered down, and positive indicators for all of the docking systems, Larry could climb up out of the pilot’s cockpit and enjoy a long-awaited shower, shave, and clean civilian clothes. This made it easier to face the perils of navigating the maze of people and procedures inside the base.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Cover

Bloody Rock

by

Steven F. Lott

Based on a true story.

As I was landing on Madrid,
I met a man who had a Squid;
Every Squid must have a pod,
Every pod has seven Squid,
Every Squid has ten long legs.
How many Mammals on Madrid? 

—Core Planets Nursery Rhyme